Last Sunday’s Gospel reading described John the Baptist as “clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist.” (Mk. 1:6) This week’s reading describes the Baptizer in somewhat different terms. It says, “He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.” (Jn. 1:8)
I mentioned last week that the description of camel’s hair and a leather belt can be understood in more than one way. In a like manner, this week’s description of the Baptizer as “not the light” can also be interpreted in various ways.
It was common during the early centuries of Christianity to draw a sharp distinction between the way of life that was acceptable among pagans and the way of life that was acceptable among believers. John’s Gospel describes that distinction in terms of light and darkness. (John 1:5) Other ancient Christian writings describe the distinction as the difference between the path to life and the path to death. (*)
It is important to understand that these descriptions are not acts of passing judgment on the world. The Gospel does not portray some people as thoroughly good, and others as thoroughly evil and incapable of being redeemed. There is no one who is capable of being completely faithful to God; even those with a strong faith remain susceptible to sin and human failings.
The ancient descriptions of light and darkness, life and death, are not dualism; they do not intend to paint vast swaths of humanity or creation as inherently evil. Rather, the stark contrast set up by such descriptions has a much more nuanced intent.
In northern Arizona, adjacent to the Grand Canyon, there is a tourist attraction called the Grand Canyon Caverns. The tour of the caverns leads to an area that is completely devoid of natural light. When the tour guides turn off the electric lights, the darkness is overwhelming. It is a very impressive experience of the necessity of light and the degree to which we rely on our eyesight.
John the Baptist’s ragged appearance and rugged lifestyle was a clear statement about his singular allegiance to God. The light proclaimed in John’s Gospel has precisely the same meaning. John was “not the light.” Rather, he was the one who pointed out the necessity of spiritual light for the world.
The contrast between light and darkness In the Prologue of John’s Gospel intends to illustrate the stark contrast between the life of faith and a life without faith in Jesus. The Gospel wants us to see that faith illumines our lives in a way similar to the way light illumines our physical environment.
The image of light and darkness, then, is addressed primarily to those who already believe. It is intended to remind us of the difference that faith has made in our lives thus far and of our continuing need for repentance. Those who live in the light are the ones who have acknowledged the darkness in their lives, and have repented of that darkness. We have been enlightened by Christ, but unavoidably, there remain areas of our lives that still walk in darkness. Hence, the need for on-going repentance.
The “light” which the Baptizer pointed out continues to show us darkness that we might continue to walk into the light. There is no condemnation here. In fact, the only condemnation that is possible is that which we choose for ourselves by opting to live in the darkness of unrepentance.
This Sunday is traditionally called “Gaudete” or Rejoicing Sunday. The name dates to a time when Advent had a penitential character; this Sunday was intended to be a brief respite from penitence. The theme of joy is still very appropriate. The ability to distinguish between spiritual light and darkness in our lives ought to be a cause for real joy.
The light of the Gospel intends to show us the darkness in our lives that we might repent. This is not for our condemnation, but that we might have real joy in our lives – the joy of knowing that we live in the light.
John the Baptizer testified to the light; we share his vocation. A compelling testimony to the reality of our faith is a life that proclaims joy about being able to distinguish between spiritual light and darkness. This Christmas season is an opportunity to be counter-cultural in what is perhaps the most shocking and constructive manner possible: give joyful and grateful testimony to your joy and gratitude about living in the light of Christ!
* Didache, Chapters 1-6.